The Joy of Chametz

I’m cleaning for Pesach and here’s what I’ve found in the bottom of my freezer so far: five small ice packs in various shapes used for “owies,” a half-eaten popsicle, a fish stick that escaped its box, pureed pumpkin from the fall harvest, and two glow-in-the-dark light sticks. I’m almost surprised that I didn’t find one last baggie of pumped breast milk, carefully measured and dated.

I’m cleaning my kitchen for Pesach. We do it every year. Well, almost every year. There was one year that we had to pay someone to help us do it. It was painful; I felt like it contradicted all of my values. Cleaning for Pesach isn’t just cleaning for me. It’s about beginning the process of preparing for a holiday that’s about spring and liberation. Cleaning feels like working hard to start anew, and it mirrors the “spiritual cleaning” of reaching towards a more just way of living. And yet, here I was, paying a monolingual Spanish-speaking woman and her daughter to clean my kitchen for us. My twins were newborns; there was no way we could do it. We couldn’t even manage to do dishes every day, let alone clean for Pesach. Determined, though, I kept putting the babies down to pick up a sponge, trying to work alongside Irma and Ana, her daughter. After a few moments a baby would scream and I’d return to nursing and changing a diaper and nursing again.

“My mom says to tell you that we’re okay and you should sit,” Ana kindly translated. “Gracias,” I said exhaustedly.

Now it is four years later and I’m back to cleaning, cleaning the kitchen that is. The bathrooms are another story. With three young children — one of them a little boy with a tendency to spray — our bathroom is just disgusting. But that’s another story and I’m not so worried about that today. Today I am focusing on the freezer and the remaining articles lingering in its dark crevices.

To be honest, we have two freezers. We bought the deep freezer when we were planning for our second child. It was some sort of pre-pregnancy nesting instinct. There is something about a deep freezer that symbolizes having enough food to feed a growing family. I pictured harvesting our garden and preparing the food for a deep winter freeze, having space for big boxes of popsicles, and extra meat tucked away. When I was growing up my grandmother had a second refrigerator in her cellar where she kept “extra food,” including strawberry and chocolate ice cream parfaits. I can still feel the sensation of a hot summer day, wet in our bathing suits, the cool cement cellar floor beneath our feet, opening the fridge door to a blast of cold air, as we each took a sugary parfait treat. To me, the extra freezer means delicious abundance wrapped with a sweet feeling of security.

I love my deep freezer. It lives up to all of my expectations. I can go to Trader Joe’s and buy all the sale items I want. I can purchase huge tubs of ice cream and pull them out on summer days, spooning out bowlfuls for pennies. I harvest our vegetables and make huge vats of tomato sauce, peaches in sugar-water, pureed pumpkins and squash that last nearly the entire winter. I make challah with the kids, eight loaves at a time, and every Thursday I draw one out of the deep freezer, ready to go without having to run to the store. It makes me feel like a combination of Earth Mother, Garden Mama, Rachael Ray and my grandmother — what could be better than that?

Throughout my life, I’ve had a range of Pesach cleaning experiences, depending on my relationship to Judaism at the time. I grew up in a family where my mom cleaned out all the chametz for Pesach and put it in paper bags in the garage. We were serious about Passover. One year when I was eight, I forgot about Pesach and ate a sandwich at a birthday party and felt horribly guilty. We brought jam on matzah to school, but the apple in the bag always hit it, and the nice square my mom made the night before became lots of little pieces.

As an adult, I had some years when I brought the fervor of strict observance to my Pesach cleaning, and some years where I’d actually drive my chametz to a soup kitchen. I don’t like the whole “give-a-goy-a-dollar-and-pretend-the-chametz-isn’t-mine” game. Now I pretty much lean towards the “eat-all-the-chametz-you-can” tradition. In fact, just earlier today I was passing out empty ice cream cones, found in the back of the pantry, to my kids.

“C’mon, eat some more chametz,” I plead. “I can’t stand it going to waste.”

“Mom, can we have some ice cream with it?” asks my nine-year-old.

“No, just eat the cone,” I say. “I don’t need to get rid of the ice cream, just the cones!”

“Pretend ice cream!” squeals one of my four-year-olds and sets about with his sister to play a make believe ice cream game.

At our synagogue there’s a group called the Mishpocha Committee. Its job is to help members in need. When we first had the twins, the Mishpocha Committee put us on their list. A handful of women in their fifties and sixties with kind and gentle spirits, most of them with grown children of their own, would come to our home and help hold a baby or two while I showered or did a load of dishes. It was hard for me to hold my own neediness. I was embarrassed by not having it all under control, but the reality was that I was completely overwhelmed. I was touched by their generosity and humility.

“It’s okay,” they would reassure me. “We’ve had babies of our own.”

“Sometimes I miss babies,” one woman told me. “It’s been a long time.”

Through her white hair and aging face, I could picture her with her own baby as she stood there rocking my infant, swaying her hips side to side.

“This doesn’t last forever,” she said. “You’ll get through this.”

This year, as I clean my freezer, I have a flash of this white-haired mother’s wisdom. We won’t always need a deep freezer. Someday, it will be just two of us, or even just be me eating by myself. Someday we won’t need huge tubs of ice cream or the extra large trays of chicken drumsticks. Someday we won’t buy popsicles or ice packs for “owies,” or have light sticks in a freezer. Someday it will all look different.

As I clean my deep freezer I am overwhelmed by appreciation for my family, for our food, for all we have right now at this moment. As I scrub the popsicle drippings off the freezer walls and use a sponge to pick random fish stick crumbs off the bottom, I am grateful for the abundance of my life.

“Thank you, God, for all the blessings of a deep freezer,” I pray silently. “On this Pesach, 5771, thank you.”

Hadar Dubowsky Ma’ayan is a writer, middle school teacher, educational researcher, professor and mother living in Albuquerque. She is the author of Reading Girls: Lives and Literacies of Adolescents [Teacher’s College Press, 2012].